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281
08/18/2016 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 19, 2016

 

Israeli athlete snubbed by Egyptian opponent. The headline said it all. The comments that followed reflected the myriad opinions on the animosity that lingers between the two nations and peoples. The challenge is that the Olympics are supposed to highlight athleticism and sportsmanship over politics and dishonor. Unfortunately, there seems to be no place devoid of Arab/Muslim animosity for an Israeli/Jewish presence either in the Middle East or on the Olympic mat.

The vast difference can be found in the Israeli/Jewish reaction to an Arab/Muslim presence especially on the same Olympic mat. Compared to his Egyptian opponent, El Shahaby, the Israeli contender, Or Sasson, said in response, “To honor your rival is something I was educated to do. The Olympics is built on respect.”

I can’t know exactly when Sasson first learned this profound lesson, but I do know that it has its roots in Talmud. There, rival rabbinic opinions were the norm. Competing rabbinic opinions stood against each other in order to refine an argument that was addressed from all sides. The victor in the legal scrape emerged from reason and experience, and some would say, from a better team of legal minds. Though animosity was not recorded, per se, there had to have been some hard feelings between competing rabbis. However, they concluded early (see the story of the Oven of Achnai) that an argument for the sake of heaven was one in which there were no losers; only sacred contenders who aimed for solutions that interpreted Torah for the sake of Jewish life lived in covenant with God.

On the Olympic Judo match, Sasson said he was educated to honor his rival. Though neither he nor his opponent is a rabbi, the Jewish (read menschlikch/human) value to honor his opponent in the Olympics should have been part of the outcome of either one’s victory. It’s only speculation, but it seems reasonable to conclude that had El Shahaby won the match, he would have lauded it over Sasson and used it for a similar political purpose that his loss did. Likewise, I think that had Sasson lost, he would have extended the same hand to Shahaby and for the same reason he did when he won the match. It’s not politics. It’s respect owed to the Olympics.

The greatest loss is found in what could have been. Just as Israel and Egypt are finding some common ground to defeat a common enemy in ISIL, Shahaby could have set aside his destructive childhood lessons about his opponent and demonstrate to his brothers in Egypt, and the audience around the world, that while peace hasn’t been embraced in the Middle East, peace can be observed when the Olympics bring us together not as nations of the world, but as one world of many nations.

Kol hakavod (all the honor) to Or Sasson, for your win on the Olympic mat, and for your victory on the mat of dignity, respect and humanity.


You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

280
08/11/2016 12:00 PM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
August 12, 2016

 

Words and things are different, but not in Hebrew. In Hebrew, “Devarim” means both words and things. The difference between them becomes clear only in context. The fact is that our Devarim (words) can be healing, compassionate, empathetic, and even politically correct when they are mindfully chosen. Every conversation between people, whether they're spouses or strangers, deserves words that reflect the best in us and the potential we hope to find in relationship with others.

This past week, I was in the Dominican Republic for my son's destination wedding. I speak very little Spanish, so I depended on basic Spanish vocabulary, simple English, and lots of appropriate hand gestures. Each word was mindfully chosen to create a shared experience where resort staff and I both accomplished what we needed. Courteous words, even in broken Spanish sentences, drew smiles and speedy assistance, too.You don't have to travel far from home to use respectful words, but failing to do so in any language can be very harmful. Speaking above a person's understanding just to gain control, or speaking offensively just to demonstrate power, disables the positive potential that can be found in any relationship and leaves everyone feeling unnecessarily insecure and fearful. In these cases, words become Devarim (things) or weapons that destroy rather than build up.

Used mindfully, words convey mutual respect even when they convey difficult messages. Used like weapons, they destroy both the user and the victim. That's why there is a fuss made by mindful people to use politically correct words. It has nothing to do with sanitizing our language as if one's mother was washing out her child's mouth with soap. It has nothing to do with avoiding the truth, as if anyone isn't completely aware of the meaning of a carefully crafted message. On the contrary, words that once suited us in the past also conveyed messages and made inferences about people and issues that we've long ago learned more about and grew to respect. So-called "Politically Correct" words match our contemporary sensibilities about race, sexuality, equality, and so much more. It's in the power of these words that we express our willingness to grow our vocabulary and discover the power to be more fully human.

Don't let anyone tell you that words don't matter or that political correctness is diluting our nation's values. Words and things can cut two ways, but they serve us best when they are words that cut the right way for the right reason. They should never cut through the soul of a human being because they hurt or burn with enmity or bigotry. In this campaign cycle and as Election Day nears, it might not occur to our candidates for president that "words matter" but they should matter to us. I hold myself, just as I hold you, to a high standard wherein our words are more than things; they are truly reflections of who we are as human beings who learn from Torah that Devarim find their source in Hebrew, our holy language.

Hebrew language is also known as Lashon Hakodesh, or Loyshen Koydesh, the holy tongue. Speaking words of Torah is akin to taking a precious item and treating it with great care and respect. To offend with words of Torah is to desecrate the entire scroll. The worst offense with words is called Lashon Hara, or the evil tongue. It still refers to gossip, hearsay and rumors. They’re most offensive because once they’re released by the tongue there’s no taking them back. The ripple effects are infinite and everything they touch causes harm. Jewish folk stories relate the role of the yenta who, by definition, spreads gossip and hearsay. She (it was most often a woman) breaches every confidence and commits the sin of lashon hara. Either scolded by the rabbi or avoided by the community, her offense bars her from regular social interactions. But, by definition she persists in her role as yenta; so, history has taught us to avoid her in our generation, too.

Our goal is to rise far and above the role of yenta in order to be persons of real value and substance. In the end, it’s about what we say and what our words say about us. Choose your Devarim well; build, love, and make peace with words.


You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.

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